First Time in English! A Thomas Bernhard Story

“Two Tutors” will appear in a newly translated collection of Bernhard’s early stories, Prose, from Seagull Press this May (see our elated facebook post of April 28).

Two Tutors
While the new tutor has until now remained silent during our lunchtime walk, which to me has already become a habit, today from the start he had a need to talk to me. Like people who for a long time have said nothing and suddenly feel it to be a terrible lack, as something alarming to themselves and the whole of society linked to them, he explained to me all at once, agitatedly, that, really, he always wanted to speak, but could not speak, talk. I was no doubt familiar with the circumstance, that there are people, in whose presence it is impossible to speak . . . In my presence, it was so difficult for him to say anything that he was afraid of every word, he did not know why, he could investigate it, but such an effort would probably vex him over far too long a period of time. Especially now, at the beginning of term, under the pressure of hundreds of pupils, all of them hostile to discipline, under the pressure of the ever coarsening season, he could not afford the least vexation.  “I permit myself absolutely nothing now,” he said,  “I consist one hundred per cent only of my personal difficulties.” Although or precisely because I was a person who, so it

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appeared to him, had the greatest understanding for him, at my side he was always condemned, at best, as he put it, to make  “ridiculous, indeed embarrassing remarks,” yes, or condemned to absolute silence, which caused him continuous torment. For weeks now we have been going for walks side by side and haven’t conducted a single conversation. It is true that we, the new tutor and myself, the old one, have been able, until this moment, to manage a single conversation; the remarks on the unusual weather conditions, on colours, the egoism of nature, abrupt excesses on the surface of the Alpine foothills, on books, read and unread, intentions, lack of intentions, on the catastrophic lack of interest of all pupils in their studies, on our own lack of interest, on eating and sleeping, truth and lies, chiefly, however, on the most shabby neglect, on the part of those responsible, of the forest paths on which we walk, are not conversations; our remarks destroy our will to converse, our remarks, like remarks altogether, the  “attempts at capturing the moment,” as he calls them, have nothing to do with the idea of conversation. Here on the Mönchsberg we make, as we walk, walking and thinking, each for himself and completely isolated, hundreds of remarks, but we have not yet succeeded in having a conversation, we do not tolerate a conversation. Because we are who we are, there is no lack of topics of conversation, but we do not permit ourselves to deploy them for purposes of pure entertainment. Since the beginning of term we walk with each other, beside each other, as if above the dreadful school accumulations, and have not conducted a single conversation. We prevent conversation as if we loathe it. Conversation as the expression of the most absurd human miseries is not possible for us. As far as conversation is concerned we are both such characters who must avoid it in order to save ourselves in a totalitarian madness from being frightened to death. Today, too, no conversation came about. We walk well outside the town and above it and in the middle of it through a grotesque alpine limestone flora, constantly at the mercy of critical observation and constantly making critical observations. The soothing effect of a conversation—we do not permit ourselves such a thing. In fact what the new tutor during our walk today had initially taken the liberty of judging a  “confession,” he already described, after only a couple of sentences, as if he wanted from the outset to prevent any intervention on my part in this  “confession,” to make it impossible, as merely a remark. Today’s remark, however, is of the greatest importance. With respect to his person, and with respect above all to the relationship between him and myself, today’s remark by the new tutor proves to be the most revealing.

The new tutor joined me under the windows of the great dormitory after morning lessons. He was pale from overexertion, but did not complain. His undemanding nature occupied my thoughts in the most painful way as we rapidly made progress, finally coming almost to the walls of the brewery, where he suddenly began to talk of his earliest childhood and then immediately of the sleeplessness, which is very closely related to his earliest childhood. This inconsiderately inborn sleeplessness was worsening indeed with time and there was no remedy for it. It was absurd to suddenly say now, that he suffered from sleeplessness, everything was absurd, and that his sleeplessness was that absolute brain- and body- destroying sleeplessness, the cause of death for him, for his confession, however,  “for what follows,” it was, he could no longer remain silent about it, indispensable.

“If you can imagine,” he said,  “that already as a child I had to lie in bed awake for ten, twelve nights in a row, dead tired, without being able to sleep. An adult,” he said,  “can, thanks to his intelligence, control his sleeplessness, make it ridiculous. Not a child. A child is at the mercy of sleeplessness.” Above the New Gate, without as usual looking down vertically on the town, we turned, as every day, to the right, not to the left: he wants to turn right, turns right, so I also turn right, because at this point above the New Gate he has always turned right, he now no longer dares turn left, I think . . . It is up to me, one day to turn left, then he too will turn left, follow me, because he is the weaker of the two of us. . . For the same reason I have now for weeks been following him to the right . . . Why? The next time I’ll simply turn left, then he too will turn left . . . The time when I can be useful to him when as usual I allow him to turn right, follow him to the right, is over, I think, now I only harm him, when I let him turn right and follow him . . . He no longer has the strength all at once to turn left . . . Shortly after the fork he said:  “What I said to you regarding my sleeplessness is related to my discharge from the Innsbruck establishment, in which, as you know, I was employed until the beginning of the holidays.” He said,  “All my life I have led only an awful life, and it is my right to lead an awful life, and this awful life is my sleeplessness . . . But now, the story which led to my discharge from the Innsbruck establishment. Like all my stories it begins with my inability to sleep. I was unable to fall asleep. I take many drugs, but no drug helps me any more. I had,” he said,  “walked for hours along the north bank with my students. We were all tired. My eyes open, incapable of distracting myself by reading, at the mercy of my lifelong sleeplessness, I was gripped by the most despicable thoughts and said to myself again and again: they sleep, I don’t sleep, they sleep, I don’t sleep, I don’t sleep, they sleep, I don’t sleep . . . This boarding school silence, this dreadful silence emanating from the dormitories . . . When everyone is asleep, only I am not sleeping, I am not . . . This tremendous capital in the young people’s dormitories, I thought . . . The Föhn conditions which stuff sleep into people and suck sleep out of people . . . The pupils sleep, I don’t sleep . . . These endless nights when heart and spirit die . . . Profoundly aware that there is no remedy for my sleeplessness, I was unable to fall asleep . . . Just imagine, I haven’t been able to sleep for weeks . . . There are people who maintain they don’t sleep, but they do. There are some who maintain they haven’t slept for weeks, and have always slept excellently . . . But I really haven’t slept for weeks! For weeks, for months! As my scribblings, my notes, show, I haven’t slept for months. I have a thick notebook in which I keep a record of my sleeplessness. Every hour of the night in which I don’t sleep is marked by a black stroke, every hour of the night in which I do is marked by a black dot. This notebook,” said the new tutor,  “contains thousands of black strokes and only five or six dots. You will not doubt, I assume, now that you know me, the accuracy with which I keep a record of my sleeplessness. And that night, on account of which I am now once again incensed to such a degree that I fear it could give offence, indeed give you offence, that night after a day full of annoyances, as far as my pupils are concerned, incessant, juvenile nonsense, insufferableness, the unyieldingly perverse rock face of Hafelekar in front of me, I was unable to sleep, unable to fall asleep, not even by enlisting quite the most embarrassing pretexts in my already catastrophic choice of reading . . . I leafed,” he said,  “quite randomly through Fear and Trembling and through Either/Or and through the Pascalian thought particles, as if these were popular masochistic pharmacology books for cases of quite minor imbecility . . . Then suddenly, at about two in the morning, at the moment at which my tiredness could overcome my sleeplessness, I suddenly felt it: the tiredness began to get the better of the sleeplessness, I fell asleep, really, I fell asleep, although for a long time, as you know, I had no longer thought of being able to sleep, had no longer dared think . . . But hardly had I fallen asleep, than I woke up again—and was woken by an animal, by an animal that had come out of the forest . . . This course of events had already repeated itself for weeks by then . . . I wake up and I hear the animal, for weeks I hear the animal under my window . . . in the snow . . . every night at the same time I hear under my window the animal in the snow . . . I don’t know what kind of an animal it is, I don’t have the strength to get up and go to the window and look out and down . . . Even now I don’t know what kind of an animal it was . . . The course of events, that I was unable to fall asleep, but then fell asleep nevertheless and after that was immediately woken up by the animal, was repeated, as is shown by my sleeplessness notes, for exactly thirty-six nights. On the thirty-seventh night, the same course of events: I was unable to sleep, unable to fall asleep, and, while I am still humiliated in the most terrible way by the thought of being unable to sleep, of not having fallen asleep, I must, as in the previous thirty-six nights have fallen asleep nevertheless, because I suddenly woke up, awoken by the animal which has stepped onto the snow beneath my window which, as you know, is always open, even in the most severe winter . . . Looking for food . . . Then,” said the new tutor,  “I got up and released the safety catch on the revolver which, throughout my career as a tutor I always have under my pillow, and shot the animal in the head.”

We were now both looking down on the square in front of the brewery.  “Naturally, everyone woke up,” said the new tutor,  “the pupils first, then the tutors, the professors, the headmaster. I observed, I listened, as they pulled the shot animal away from the draw-well, along the wall. The tutors dragged it into the building. I heard my name called. A good shot. Naturally, I instantly handed in my resignation. A good shot. I detest Innsbruck. Here, in Salzburg, I already observe now, however, after only the shortest time, the signs of a new calamity. I expressly ask you, dear colleague,” said the new tutor,  “for forgiveness.”
1967, translated by Martin Chalmers

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8 Responses to First Time in English! A Thomas Bernhard Story

  1. [...] Star has posted “Two Tutors,” an early story of Thomas Bernhard. The story will be part of a forthcoming book of prose originally published in German in 1967, but [...]

  2. thomas melbert says:

    why would one reply, except in agreement that one needs a companion
    in order to confirm “death in life.” Bernhard is Beckett’s companion, and
    ours. Laughter and typing are equivalent. Both show love for this author–
    our companion. RIP!

  3. [...] In Long on June 27, 2010 at 7:35 am I was no doubt familiar with the circumstance, that there are people, in whose presence it is impossible to speak . . . Possibly related posts: [...]

  4. This piece was really informative

  5. Deep meaning, the story makes all our cells become aware of something happening to us, something that follows our lives and tells us that most of them cannot be shared. Only a few persons have the chance to share for a few seconds in their lives something that is very personal and intimate!

  6. [...] that includes many translations and very tempting titles.  The first story in Prose, Two Tutors, can be read online at the web journal Little [...]

  7. Rory Mayberry says:

    A beautiful translation!